2012– Kimi knew what he was doing but Seb got the job done
Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull), Fernando Alonso (Ferrari) and Kimi Raikkonen (Lotus) – these three world champions led the championship standings coming into Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in 2012,round 18 out of 20.
Vettel was the defending champion, driving for the favoured Red Bull team, and the title seemed to be in theory his to lose, with Red Bull and Vettel hitting their stride at the end of the year, winning the four previous Grand Prix to take the lead in the championship. Fernando Alonso, desperate to deliver a title for Ferrari, had fought valiantly throughout the year, consistently dragging the best out of a Ferrari which was far from the class of the field, but had seen his midseason lead in the championship decimated by Vettel’s run of form, a DNF in Japan three races earlier following an opening lap collision with Kimi Raikkonen dealing a devastating blow for Alonso’s title hopes. Alonso was now 13 points behind Vettel, and with the Ferrari looking no match for the Red Bull (and indeed struggling against the likes of McLaren and Lotus), the chances of a first Ferrari driver’s title since 2007 seemed to be fading.
Next up in the championship standings was the man to deliver that title in 2007, Kimi Raikkonen. Although a long way back in the title chase (67 points behind Vettel), Raikkonen form in 2012 was one of the stories of the season, his consistent finishing elevating him in the championship despite the lack of a race win. After winning the title in 2007 in his first season with Ferrari, Kimi’s form had dipped, with some questioning his desire, and he was ultimately sacrificed by Ferrari to make way for Alonso’s arrival in 2010. As a result, Raikkonen left F1, and spent a couple of years trying his hand at rallying and NASCAR, but for 2012 he was lured back to F1 with Lotus, who had been a distant fifth badged as Renault in 2011.
In qualifying for the Grand Prix, Lewis Hamilton, already confirmed as moving to Mercedes for the 2013 season, took pole position for McLaren, with Vettel’s Red Bull team-mate second and Vettel third. Alonso could only manage 7th, almost a second back on pole man Hamilton. It really did seem as if Alonso’s only hope for the title was a recurrence of the reliability problems Red Bull had suffered earlier in the season , where alternator trouble had cost Vettel 2 retirements. But after qualifying Ferrari were offered a lifeline as Vettel was demoted to the back of the grid, Vettel having stopped on track at the end of qualifying to save fuel, the stewards ruled he did not have enough fuel to give a sample, and he was thrown out of qualifying. A tough penalty perhaps, but with Lewis Hamilton having suffered the same fate after setting the fastest time in qualifying for the Spanish Grand Prix earlier in the year, the outcome seemed inevitable.
So to the race. Red Bull opted to start Vettel from the pits, giving them the chance to work on the settings of the car, to allow greater straight-line speed to help him deal with traffic as he tried to salvage what he could from the race. Before the race started Vettel was given a free pass of Pedro de la Rossa’s HRT, as the backmarker was pushed into the pit lane behind Vettel, having failed on the grid. As the race started Hamilton made a clean start, while Mark Webber made his customary poor getaway, being engulfed by the Williams of Pastor Maldonado and the Lotus of Kimi Raikkonen, who had started third and fourth respectively after Vettel’s penalty with Kimi coming out on top to exit the first corner in second place, while Webber dropped to fourth behind Maldonado. Alonso, who started sixth held station behind fifth place started Jenson Button (McLaren). Behind, Red Bull were delighted to see more drama in the midfield make Vettel’s recovery drive that bit easier. Four into one simply does not go, with the two Force India’s of Nico Hulkenberg and Paul DiResta on the inside and the Sauber of Sergio Perez and Williams of Bruno Senna coming up the outside as they approached Turn 1, inevitable collision moved cars out of Vettel’s way, with the Force India’s colliding and Hulkenberg bumping into Senna, with Di Resta suffering a puncture and Hulkenberg was out on the spot. Not a bad start to the race for Vettel, who still hadn’t left the pits! A further collision between Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes and Romain Grosjean’s Lotus would mean a trip to the pits for both as well with a puncture, further improving Vettel’s chances. Alonso was doing his part, muscling his way past Button as Button ran wide out of Turn 1, and diving past Webber at the end of the long straight into Turn 11, the Ferrari now up to fourth, with Vettel 20th as they crossed the line at the end of the first lap.
Up front Raikkonen was applying pressure to Hamilton, trying for a pass on lap 2 after Hamilton ran wide and allowed the Lotus a shot down the long straight, but Hamilton hung on, and started to pull away. All eyes were on Vettel, who was clearly in no mood to mess around, but he nearly came to disaster as he was too hasty in trying to clear the Williams of Bruno Senna, Vettel clumsily lunging up the inside from too far back and damaging his front wing off Senna’s rear tyre as Senna came up to pass the HRT of Narain Karthikeyan on lap 2. The Red Bull crew were ready to pit Vettel for a new nose, but Vettel continued, first getting by the HRT and then passing Senna safely on the straight on lap 3, and taking the Marussia of Charles Pic with him in the same move for good measure. Vettel moved passed the remaining Marussia and Caterham’s before getting a break, as on lap 9 Nico Rosberg (a first lap puncture casualty), got his breaking all wrong and ploughed into the back of Narain Karthikeyan, the Mercedes bouncing up over the HRT in a huge smash and bringing out the safety car.
It all seemed to be falling Vettel’s way, with the safety car bunching the field up, Vettel up as high as 13th place and set to renew his push when the safety car pulled in, but there was drama to come under the safety car. As the world was played the radio message from the pit lane showing Red Bull were not worried about the damage to Vettel’s front wing, leaving any change to a planned pit stop, Vettel was caught napping and had to jump on the brakes and smash into a DRS board to avoid the Toro Rosso of Daniel Ricciardo as the cars weaved and braked to warm their tyres under the safety car. The result was too much for the Red Bull front wing, and Vettel was forced to pit for a new nose, but at least he would be on fresh tyres when he rejoined, now back down in 21st place.
The race resumed on lap 14, with Vettel on fresh tyres make light work of the cars immediately ahead of him. He had a slight drama as he passed Romain Grosjean on lap 16, the two going side as Vettel battled to move up the order, with Vettel impatiently putting all four wheels off the track as he lined up to pass Grosjean down the straight, but Red Bull gave the call to hand the place back, and the following lap he made the move stick legally, breezing past the Lotus with the aid of DRS.
Up front race leader Lewis Hamilton suffered yet more frustration with McLaren, once again retiring from a race that looked to be his for the taking as his McLaren ground to a halt on lap 20. Vettel once again breezed past the Caterhams and Marussia of Timo Glock, as well as the dutiful Toro Rosso of Jean Eric Vergne, to move back up to 12th, while up front Fernando Alonso gave Ferrari something to cheer about as he passed Maldonado for what was now second place on lap 21. Vettel was back up to the Williams of Bruno Senna, and while Kimi Raikkonen was famously telling his pit, and the world, “just leave me alone I know what I’m doing” as he was offered information on the gap to Alonso, Vettel would get past Senna on lap 22, while ahead the sister Red Bull of Mark Webber got in a tangle as he tried to go around the outside the Williams of Pastor Maldonado on lap 23, with Maldonado refusing to accept defeat and punting Webber into a spin. Button soon managed to take Maldonado cleanly for third place (the trick with Pastor is to go down the inside!). Vettel meanwhile continued to pick off the midfielders, and passes on Ricciardo and Mercedes Michael Schumacher brought him right up behind Webber, who did his team-mate a favour by getting himself in more trouble on lap 26 as he went around the outside of Massa, with the Red Bull bumped wide and the Ferrari spinning as Webber came back on track, with Vettel now up to an amazing seventh behind Webber as a result of the Ferrari spin.
One by one the race leaders began to make their pit stops, with Vettel up to second place behind Raikkonen before Kimi made his stop, the last of the leaders to do so. Kimi dived for the pits on lap 31 and manageds to resume in the lead, with a two second margin over Vettel, and Alonso in third. The question now was if Vettel could make it to the end without stopping again?
In the end Red Bull decided it was too risky, the risk of falling off the cliff too great, and pulled Vettel in on lap 37, but he was able to re-join in fourth position, with Button up the road ahead of him in third. Just two laps later things turned again as the safety car was back out. Paul Di Resta passed Romain Grosjean on the straight into Turn 11, with Sergio Perez following him through, the Sauber and Force India running side by side through Turns 11 and 12 before touching on entry to Turn 13, with Perez running wide on the outside. Perez kept his foot in, coming back across the track and being collected by Grosjean as they turned into Turn 14, with the Lotus being spun around and collected by the Red Bull of Mark Webbber, who limped to the side of the track as the safety car was deployed with Grosjean’s Lotus stranded on the track.
Once again the field was bunched up, and Vettel had not only the gap to Button wiped out, he now had the fresher tyres to chase down the McLaren. The safety car pulled in at the end of lap 42, and Raikkonen responded well, opening a gap out to Alonso, who was under immediate pressure from Button. Button though was coming under pressure from Vettel on those fresh tyres, and their scrap for third allowed Alonso to pull clear, with Vettel making several attempts to pass the McLaren, before making the most of any fortune that had come his way by bravely going round the outside of the McLaren into Turn 11 on lap 52 of the 55 lap race (Vettel fortunate that Button didn’t defend to the extreme as Maldonado had on Webber!). Alonso, had kept the pressure on Raikkonen, but was unable to close the gap, and Kimi took the chequered flag to record his first victory since his return to Formula One. Alonso claimed a second place that looked unlikely on Saturday afternoon, but despite cutting Vettel’s lead in the championship, must surely have been disappointed at seeing Vettel stand alongside him on the podium. Kimi knew what he was doing alright, but one way or the other Vettel had gotten the result he needed to keep him on track for a third consecutive driver’s title!